Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Was the Brexit vote a call for more accountable, less distant - even local - government?

Sociologist Geert Hofstede, as part of his work looking at the different dimensions of culture, created the idea of 'power distance' - “the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Because people feel - physically or psychologically - a long way from where the decisions about their lives are made they become less engaged and involved. This may well explain why, in most developed world democracies, voter turnout rises as social class rises - and this difference has been growing:
In the 1987 general election, for example, the turnout rate for the poorest income group was 4% lower than for the wealthiest. By 2010 the gap had grown to a staggering 23 points.
While 'I can't be bothered' or 'I don't understand politics' might be the sort of explanation we get when we canvass non-voters from lower social classes, it is likely that people in these classes no longer feel that their voting makes much difference to what the government does once it's ensconced in nice warm offices down in London. More importantly, other than that periodic opportunity to vote, people feel unable to influence government in its process of decision-making on things that affect them.

If we look at the levels of government, from the parish council up to the EU and other international bodies, it seems more likely that people (and in particular people from lower social classes) are able to influence the decisions of their parish council far more than they are the decisions of the European Union's Commission and Parliament. Those people can and do organise to go to the parish council, a body filled with people much more like them than higher tier levels of government, and argue for a particular course of action. And, more importantly, see that course of action enacted.

The problem in England is that fewer and fewer decisions affecting people (and especially working class people) are made in places close enough to those people for their voice to be worth expressing. So people don't bother. Worse still, since the national decision is necessarily broad brush, the minutiae of how that decision is implemented in a given place are discussed by bureaucrats without reference to the voters these minutiae impact.

Since democracy is as much about how accountable decision-makers feel as it is about how many people vote, the systems we have at national and supra-national levels act to exclude people. Decisions are made about what's taught in schools, about how money for health care is distributed, about where houses should be built - a myriad of things that affect us directly - without the public having the means to contribute or, more importantly, for the decision-makers to feel in any way accountable to that public.

The answer is, of course, making politics more local, not just in homage to Tip O'Neill's maxim that 'all politics is local', but because local decision-making is more accessible and therefore more accountable. This probably makes it better decision-making and it certainly means the politicians can't hide behind layers of Kafka-esque bureaucracy when confronted with their dafter decisions. As Tim Worstall put it (in explaining one reason why Denmark works so well as a culture):
Instead they have what I call the Bjorn's Beer Effect. You're in a society of 10,000 people. You know the guy who raises the local tax money and allocates that local tax money. You also know where he has a beer on a Friday night. More importantly Bjorn knows that everyone knows he collects and spends the money: and also where he has a beer on a Friday. That money is going to be rather better spent than if it travels off possibly 3,000 miles into some faceless bureaucracy.
So, if you're looking for ways to improve English government perhaps, instead of moving decisions ever further up the tiers of government, we should do the opposite and move decisions down to the most local level possible. The EU called this 'subsidiarity', spoke at great length about it, then proceeded to ignore it in favour of ever more 'harmonisation' (bureaucrat speak for what the Daily Mail calls the "postcode lottery"). If you're looking for reasons why those disengaged lower social class voters turned out to vote in the Brexit referendum, the fact they felt - perhaps for the first time - that they were actually involved in making an important decision might be a big reason. And, although the stated reasons for voting to leave are many and varied, the fact that the EU is distant, complicated and (in the terms we've discussed) essentially unaccountable sits at the heart of people's choice. "Taking back control" isn't about sovereignty or the UK parliament, it should be a call for us to get decisions about peoples' lives right back down to where those people have a fighting chance of influencing what's decided.


Wednesday, 7 November 2018

A comment on the US Midterm elections (and why the media and the Democrats risk getting it wrong)

I'm guessing most of you aren't geeky or obsessed enough to have stayed up most of last night watching the US midterm election results roll in. I did and mighty good fun it was too. I chose to watch CNN for the simple reason that their presentation of the data (and the chap who talks to it) is really good. I'm not going to comment on the outcome and what it means because, like most of us over here my knowledge of US politics is paper thin. We know now that the result was the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives while the Republicans consolidated their hold on the Senate. It seems obvious to me that this reflects the same pattern as for Trump's election in 2016 with the Democrats piling up votes in places the already won while Republicans sneak back in or win by narrow margins in places - Florida, Ohio, Texas - where they target.

In the short term* the results seem good for Republicans and suggest that the Democrats will have an uphill struggle to unseat Trump in 2020 especially if they make the mistake of this campaign (and 2016) of targeting the wrong places (all that money and attention on a skateboarding chap in a Texas senate race and a couple of rock solid blue seats in the North East because they had strong female candidates). I also wonder whether the Democrats will revisit the mistake the Republicans made in 1994 and spend all their time trying to bring down the President.

The reason I feel the Democrats will again get both strategy and tactics wrong was illustrated by the conversation, once the change in the House was clear, between the CNN presenters. I don't recall the precise details of the interaction between the main anchor and two presenters but, in summary, it asked what the new Democratic House majority should (could? would?) do and concluded that the focus would be on Trump - "maybe they'll get Trump's tax returns" said one, "the i-word - impeachment" said another, "the Mueller business" - you get the gist. The entire focus, or so these pundits suggested, is going to be the continued programme of trying to prove that Trump (or the Russians or a secret cabal under the direction of Steve Bannon) stole the 2016 election, a sort of post hoc vindication of Hilary Clinton.

Maybe this stuff matters but I can't help but think that the people who just elected Democrats to congress did so to get better healthcare, funding for schools, childcare and welfare support. And if their shiny new representatives, having promised all this, then spend all their time shovelling through the arcana of the previous presidential election, this simply plays into Trumps hands. And with the great hopes for Democratic ambitions - bouncy, dynamic modern folk like Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Gillum - falling at the first hurdle it's hard to see where the person to challenge Trump will come from. What Trump wants, because it's what he's best at, is a long, vulgar shouting match over things that really don't matter a jot to the ordinary American.

The problem, however, is that the media - as those pundits on CNN last night showed - wants that long, loud scrap with Trump. Not because it's important but because, in these days of politics as entertainment, it's box office in a way that boring stuff about medicare or housing policy simply isn't. Those latter things really are the things that matter to Americans but the media, just as is the case in Britain, would rather focus on gossip and the shallow and snide world of Twitter than on the big issues facing real people.

*In the long term Republicans have a problem with cities and especially the growing sun belt suburbs that tells me, without some changes in focus and strategy, places like Texas and Tennessee will start electing statewide democrats again.

Monday, 5 November 2018

A new feudalism? Housing costs, business structures and the pricing out of the middle class

US geographer, Joel Kotkin has been speaking for a while about how the nature - social and economic - of his home state of California is changing towards what he calls a "New Feudalism":
Today California is creating a feudalized society characterized by the ultra-rich, a diminishing middle class and a large, rising segment of the population that is in or near poverty. Overall our state now suffers one of the highest GINI rates — the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest — among the states, and the inequality is growing faster than in almost any state outside the Northeast, notes liberal economist James Galbraith. The state’s level of inequality now is higher than that of Mexico, and closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed states like Canada and Norway.
Kotkin (and fellow author, Marshall Toplinsky) describe how, once housing costs are considered, the supremely progressive state of California has the USA's highest rates of poverty. Despite this, Californian politics is dominated by the wealthy few and those who live off advocating for the poor. As Kotkin & Toplinsky despair that "no prominent California politician, left or right, has addressed seriously the collapse of the state’s dream of upwardly mobility".
The causes will be familiar to anyone looking at the development of and challenges facing London:

The real problems lie with policies that keep housing prices high, an education system that is a disgrace, particularly for the poor, and a business climate so over-regulated that jobs can be created either in very elite sectors or in lower-paying service professions. Even in the Bay Area in coming decades regional agencies predict only one in five new jobs will be middle income; the rest will be at the lower end.

The result of this situation is that feudalism - a modern serfdom - Kotkin describes. A wealthy few, that shiny knights and ladies of the elite serviced by poorly paid workers unable to join the asset merry-go-round. Even relatively well-paid workers will be trapped by a choice between their job and moving to another, more affordable place - stay renting forever (or hope for the financial break that gets them into the gentry) or move somewhere colder, poorer and far way where they can buy a home and raise a family.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

More on trying to rescue rural places from depopulation - Japanese craft beer

I've written a few times about how rural places in the developed world are depopulating, leaving behind the old, ill and poor, as people move to the city. And the local governments of these depopulating places - in Ireland, Switzerland, Devon, Sardinia and Calabria - are trying new ways to get folk back living in remote towns and village. Most of this is about straightforward bribery - we'll pay you to come and live here, we'll give a free house, we'll provide a variety of financial incentives.

This one from Japan is a little different and involves art, beer and broadband:
It’s not just craft beer that has attracted young urbanites to Kamiyama. However, the Kamiyama Beer Project is symbolic for chiho sosei (creating life in the countryside), a set of government measures to attract a younger population to Japan’s rapidly shrinking rural population. Kamiyama’s population has decreased from 21,000 in 1955 to around 6,000 today. But, a slow increase is on its way as the town recently introduced high-speed broadband Internet, satellite office spaces for city-based companies, an artist in residence program, a local farming project, and a craft beer brewery.
I wish them well - technology ought to make living in cities less necessary but it still seems that the lure of the bright lights pulls the young away from fields, farms and tranquillity.


The world is not an engineering problem - an argument against technocracy

Chris Dillow has an interesting blog post about the problems with what he calls 'liberal technocracy':
This urge to express all arguments in consequentialist terms is an admission that liberal technocracy has won. The only acceptable arguments for any policy, it is believed, are consequentialist ones – ideally, along the lines of making us materially better off. And everybody seems to accept Mill’s harm principle, and thus argue for bans on the – often elusive – grounds that the activity in question does indeed impose harms onto others.
You only need look at the new found 'neoliberalism' of the Adam Smith Institute to see the onward march of this "what works is what's right" approach to policy-making. Dillow speaks of how some things are, as it were, felt rather than analysed - the "best case for Brexit is an intrinsic one – that it’ll give us a sense of independence and sovereignty" and when advocates try to set out economic utilitarian gains from leaving their argument weakens. I once wrote a similar thing about Scottish independence:
It's the idea of Scotland in that quote from Henry Scott Riddell's 'Scotland Yet' - not about some idea of superiority, certainly no hatred or dislike, just a message of pride, joy and love for the place. And the nation - that thing we try to define with grand words - is all those who share those emotions, that association.

When Kipling wrote about men having small hearts it was about these feelings - we cannot love everywhere and we cannot expect everyone to love the place we love. But we can share that love with those who do and that is nationhood. No government, no kings, no lords, no oil, no First Minister. Just people placing their boots in the soil and saying "this is my country and I'll work with you to make it better".

If you want independence for reason of blood, for reason of hatred or for reason of greed then you deserve to lose. But if you want independence for pride, joy and love of the place that is Scotland then - for what it's worth - you have my blessing and I wish you well.
The idea here is something we've lost from our thinking, one of those virtues Deirdre McCloskey writes about, the idea of faith, that there are things we have to take as felt not as demonstrated by science. This rejection of maximising utility as the only purpose of public policy is perhaps the single most important thing in McCloskey's triology on bourgeois virtues - that ideas matter as much as science does. And it is true since the things we feel cannot be defined by utilitarian or consequentialist argument - here's economist Don Boudreaux:
There are no scientific ‘solutions’ to society's problems. This reality is so in part because in many cases people legitimately disagree over what arranged changes are desirable and which are undesirable. For example, some people join me in celebrating marijuana legalization; other people disagree sincerely and deeply even if there is no disagreement over the predicted health and behavioral effects of marijuana use. There is no scientific ‘solution’ to this disagreement or to any other disagreement that turns on differences in values and preferences.
This reminds me of P J O'Rourke speaking of his politics - "I'm personally conservative" says O'Rourke but believes government, public policy, should be as libertarian as possible. So a man who believes drinking and smoking are sinful can, at the same time as holding these views, support the liberalisation of their use. But, it is more likely that such a person for reasons of faith - belief without evidence - will oppose liberal drinking laws and even propose stricter temperance or prohibition.

Back at university we coined the term "soft loo-paper conservatism" to describe the approach to student politics where the only care was the good management of the student union and its services to the student body (such as, hence the phrase, insisting on better toilet paper in the union buildings' loos). Management was all that matters - Boudreaux quotes a cynical comment from James Buchanan on economists and public policy:
Once he has defined his social welfare function, his public interest, he can advance solutions to all of society’s economic ills, solutions that government, as deus ex machina, is, of course, expected to implement.
The problem is that politics just doesn't work like this - people have views, felt experiences, faith meaning that the answer might be a different one from that produced through the expert's systems. Nor can we ever be perfectly sure that the expert's answer isn't sub-optimal - there are plenty of examples of technocratic solutions to perceived problems that have failed or, in solving one problem, merely acted to create three new ones. Raising the duty on fags seems to work as a means of reducing their consumption but there's a point at which it creates an opportunity for criminal arbitrage - the cost of making a cigarette is so much lower that the sale price it's worth the risk for the criminal to create a black market.

It seems right that government should seek the 'right' solutions in its policy-making but this assumes that there is such a solution and, indeed, that the negatives of such a policy don't outweigh the benefits of the solution. After all, if we take the utilitarian argument in its entirety, it begins to make the case for a sort of Huxley-esque benign authoritarianism, a Singapore-on-Steroids. For my part, I prefer things a little messy because not only are the solutions so often dependent on coercion but they also require that the ordinary citizen's faith and feelings are denied. Maximising utility seems a good thing but it is not the main reason why people do things like set up business, create charities, build village halls, paint, sing, create or innovate. Technocracy treats the world as an engineering problem when it's an unfolding story, explorers in a dense jungle not white-coated scientists in a laboratory.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

It seems it's now policy not to make arrests (or a clip round the ear)

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It's just our bringin' up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Arrests have fallen in the UK by nearly a half. The police, unsurprisingly, blame this on reduced "resources" but it is worth noting that there are not 50% fewer coppers - not even the more deranged parts of the Labour Party are making that claim - so you can't lay fewer arrests at the door of so-called "austerity".

I guess this is a better reason:
“Officers are also encouraged to deal with offending behaviour proportionately and effectively, maximising public involvement, keeping people out of the criminal justice system and supporting reduced re-offending behaviour through positive intervention.”
It is now policy not to arrest people and for the police to behave a bit like a cross between a social worker and Judge Dredd - dealing with "offending behaviour" rather than catching criminals as used to be the case. This might be seen as a welcome return to the old-fashioned "clip round the ear" approach to policing where the coppers visited low level summary justice on badly behaved youth rather than arresting them. I've a fear, however, that the process of arrest, charge and the criminal justice process is such a nightmare of paperwork and mind-numbing bureaucracy that not arresting bad 'uns just makes the coppers' lives easier. What I do know is that, for all the "gee, Officer Krupke" banter, there's precious little evidence of this sort of policing "reducing reoffending behaviour".

I've always taken a care to listen to the explanations I get from the police and I also appreciate that the burglars aren't things of their creation but this mealy-mouthed, bureaucrat speak about how the police work seems to cover up an almost abject failure to do what the public wants - robust, hard, policing that targets the vicious, greedy young men who commit the crimes and upset the lives of decent, law-abiding people. It certainly doesn't appear to the majority of folk that the police are either present in their community or responsive to the needs of that place. Today's police seem to be stuck in cars, draped with ever more bits of kit and, when you get to speak with them, talking in an almost impenetrable language quite unlike how regular folk speak about criminals and crime.

The police have the time and resource to get filmed dancing at pride marches but not to respond promptly to a burglary at a frightened elderly couple's house, put more publicity behind getting people to report bad language on social media, and police "senior leaders" hide behind bureaucracy to excuse their failures. Blaming a 50% drop in arrests on resourcing is, quite simply, a lie but nobody is looking chief constables and crime commissioners in the eye and saying "pull the other one, mate". Yes more money for policing might be a good idea but only if that money gets spent on actual policing not a bureaucratic, politically correct pastiche of policing.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Can we build family homes not factory farms for hipsters?

You'll hear it from time to time - "London is the least densely populated mega-city", "we could build higher and more denses to solve the housing crisis". I've a problem with this argument and it doesn't matter whether it comes from the anti-development CPRE or the trendily pro-development London YIMBYs, because it doesn't reflect what people want. And, while we can all have a laugh about the things local councillors say at planning meetings (certainly the twitterati had a field day here) but these guys in Leeds have a point:
“This is a very dense development.

“I look at that and think there is no public or amenity site on the development.

“There are odd days in the year where it’s nice, warm and sunny, and there is nowhere in this development for people to go outside and sit.

“It seems like you are trying to cram a lot onto this site with very little amenity space. If you had children you wouldn’t want to live here, because there is no space for them at all.

“I really don’t like this (application), and the more I think about it, the less I like it."
This is a proposal for 242 tiny flats that are said to have "co-living space" making it all fine, I guess. The problem is that Cllr Colin Campbell, who words are above, is spot on. Providing a laundry room and free (or 'included in the service charge' sort of free) wi-fi doesn't fit the bill. There are a lot of reasons why dense, high-rise developments of this sort are anti-family but they are also sub-optimal for any long-residency.

Spain famously has some of the most population dense cities in Europe - living in flats and apartments is normal for much of the population and generations of Spaniards were brought up in these sorts of places. But there's something important Spain gets right that we are failing to do - people need an outside. Not a tiny little balcony you can squeeze two tiny chairs onto if you jiggle them nor just access to some sort of communal garden or open space but a decent-sized outside where you can do something - from sitting and lounging to having a long lesurely dinner with the family.

"What about the weather" will come the obvious reply and, it's true, Spain does enjoy more sunshine and less rain than Leeds. But is it really beyond the wit of architects and designers to create places that have an outside - a roof garden, a terrace, an atrium - while providing for everything the British weather can throw at them? Whether it's the glass curtains that so many Spanish flats acquire or awnings, or part-covered spaces there is a way to give people the outside they want, a personal space where there's fresh air (or not so fresh in the case of some city centres), a view and the chance on a good day of some sunshine.

For densification to work in our cities it has to provide the things that people want from a family home. And a private outdoor space is one of those things (as are dining space, living space, good storage and car parking) yet we're building thousands of flats that fail to meet this requirement simply because the designers think outdoors is a luxury not an essential part of a home. So, for all that I'll grant developers the right to build soul-less and depressing bunny-hutches, it's time we recognised that this simply isn't meeting demand at any level beyond "have I got a roof over my head". At their best these high rise developments are factory farms for hipsters while their worst is as a sort of holding pen for society's flotsum and jetsum. It's family homes we need and what people want, perhaps we should build them instead?